For the last 40 years, scientific researchers have declared that the Danish people were the happiest on earth. Not only is Denmark the happiest country, but one of the smartest. Mensa ranks Denmark #5 based on the number of geniuses per capita. Today we are here with Jessica Joelle Alexander who is a Danish parenting expert and bestselling author of a new book, The Danish Way of Parenting. She’s uncovered the real secret to the Danes’ happiness and is here to tell us how we can cultivate our own happy children.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Jessica thank you so much for being here.
Jessica Alexander: Thank you for having me it’s a pleasure.
Kelly: Why does Denmark have the happiest children on earth?
Jessica Alexander: Well, I think it’s because of the parenting. I have been married to a Dane for 17 years and when we first met I was not a maternal person. I didn’t think that I wanted to have children and then I saw the children in Denmark and they were so serene and happy and well-behaved and I said to my husband “if I can have a Danish child, I definitely want to have children!” And then many years later when I was pregnant with my daughter, I was put on bed rest and I read many, many books on parenting because I wanted to be a good parent. And what I found when my daughter was born was that instead of going to the books, I always preferred my Danish family and friends’ advice to anything I read. And this became just natural for me. It was what I always did. And then one day, years later, I was reading a newspaper that Denmark has the happiest people in the world. And at the same time my husband was changing my daughter’s language around her fear of something (spiders) This is the very Danish parenting practice called reframing. And I just thought “oh my gosh it must be the parenting! Happy children grow up to be happy parents who raise happy children!”
And I felt that it had helped me so much that I knew we could help others.
Kelly: I loved your books and I actually use it for my own children who are two and three and I use a lot of your advice to help parent. But I do want to know, what is it really like to be in Denmark raising a young child?
Jessica Alexander: Well I actually don’t live in Denmark. The reason that I wrote the book was because I feel that the Danish way is something that we can import anywhere. So I don’t believe that the tenants are not about what Denmark offers. It’s about what they believe as parents that we can implement anywhere in the world. And actually, a lot of people ask me “how can we recreate this here because, for example, they have a very good social system.” And I always say that “I think if we raise our children and teach them more empathy, for example, among other things they teach them in Denmark, our children will grow up to change the system too.”
Kelly: From the zero to three, like the really early years, are there anything different that the parents do during that time frame that maybe someone else in America or other countries don’t do?
Jessica Alexander: Absolutely! So one of the things they do is they engage in a lot of free play. The idea of over programming kids doesn’t exist and there’s much less competition in general. There is a lot more support between parents as well and definitely no over programming. They’re not checking every milestone as much because they want children to have self-esteem and not base it on these kind of measurements. We sort of tend to get into that in the US sometimes -we’re very interested to know how fast our kids can do something and we talk about it and that puts a little bit of pressure on us. So that’s definitely something they do differently.
Kelly: I found really interesting your books that you know the kids that they don’t have a lot of toys. I think people here just have so much stuff and their kids are always wanting a lot of stuff. Can you talk a little bit about that about?
Jessica Alexander: Yes! Absolutely. This has been an example of one of the tenets that I have really implemented that I think we could implement everywhere and it makes a huge difference. This is that concept of the hygge, which basically means “cozy times with family and friends.” And it is not about stuff- it’s really about creating a psychological space with your loved ones. So the way I describe hygge it is to imagine that you walk into a psychological space with your family and outside this door you leave your complaining, your negativity, your work stress, etc. The reason I think so interesting is because it’s something that has really dramatically changed my American family. Hygge is a very, very Danish concept. It’s something that they grow up with so it’s completely normal for them. A lot of people are talking about hygge but they talk about it in terms of lighting candles and warm tea. But for me, I don’t think that that’s why hygge makes you happy. I think Danes see it hygge as candles an and tea and a cozy feel because they grow up with so it’s so natural. For us, as non-Danes, in order to make hygge happen, I believe it’s a psychological space we create. So, hygge is basically- you have to imagine that you enter into a psychological space with your family. In this space, you leave outside your complaining, your negativity, your work stress, anything, controversial—discussions, politics, and for these moments you are just present with the ones you love. You can focus on food, you can talk about good memories, you can just be there with the people you love. And I know that it sounds really simple, but actually, for us, it takes some awareness to make it happen because we’re so used to a lot of families have these sort of habits. Where we either get negative or we have our phones or we’re stressed out. But if you can just decide for a period of time and the day to be present with your loved ones without anything else it is extremely recharging for the soul. And it is the children who are the ones that benefit the most from this. It is amazing how much they love to be with their families in a drama free environment. (I love that) Yeah, you know it’s amazing. I get up early in the morning to light some candles and just spend a little time with my kids in the morning. It’s really, really powerful.
Kelly: Yeah! That so important I think especially in the early years. I know that Denmark doesn’t start formal schooling until about age 6. I do understand that people put their children in day care starting around eight months. Can you talk about that?
Jessica Alexander: Yeah! So again- so they have a a great social system which is very supportive of families and new moms and so obviously that helps a lot. But one of the things that they really, really encourage up until the age of six, as I said, is this idea of play. So not over programming their lives. Play is considered the most important thing a child can do in Denmark and that is something that I’ve had to really change my perspective on being outside. Not having my American hat on and to really just relax and say -I know that this is really good for them and to stand back and to not hover and to let them fall down sometimes and to believe that they are learning; empathy, negotiation skills, resilience- it’s teaching them so many things and we’re starting to know that now and we’re starting to believe it. But I think we’ve gotten to just believe (as parents) that we have to sort of always program their lives. I mean every step. And we really don’t.
Kelly: So, what are they actually doing in the day care? I mean can people talk about the free play here and especially for this age group you think you’re letting them play. How is it really different though than the free play here, for example?
Jessica Alexander: Well, they have very simple toys I would say compared to what we have. They have much less stuff like we were talking about earlier when we were talking about hygge. In general, Danes have less stuff than we have and natural toys (for example) have never gone out of style. So, it’s all wood you know and you don’t find a lot of plastic things there. And the simpler the better. So, for example, they have forest kindergartens. Have you heard of forest kindergartens?
Kelly: I haven’t no.
Jessica Alexander: So these are basically very popular and children go from morning to night to the forest in warm suits and they spend the whole day climbing trees, whittling sticks with knives, you know jumping around on logs. It’s amazing. It doesn’t matter what the weather is. It’s just they’re outdoors from morning to night. And looking at the research this is very, very good for children.
Kelly: Yeah! That sounds amazing. My child for example, my three-year-old, he said he wants to take violin lessons, and he proactively asked me! I mean do they frown on things like that like actually putting them in some kind of a lesson?
Jessica Alexander: No, so they have something called the zone of proximal development which is how all of their learning is based. So basically, they’re always trying to find the sweet spot of learning. They don’t want a child to feel too pushed or too pulled. So it’s like we are scaffolding. I think in the book we use the analogy of helping a child to climb over a log. At first you hold their hand, and then you hold their finger and then you let go. You don’t push them over the wall and you don’t carry them over. It’s all about meeting them right where they’re still interested in the learning, they’re curious and they want to learn… it comes from them. This is sort of the crux of it. They want to build- it’s called an internal locus of control. They want them to build that desire from within to keep learning. So of course, if they’re interested in something- that’s completely encouraged! It’s just that they don’t get pressured from other parents and society like we do. When we hear, “oh my child learned to read at two” or “my child is in baby yoga” or “my child goes to Harvard preschool” or whatever. It’s really it’s a challenge to step away from that.
Kelly: There is so much competition I hear between parents and things like that. Which leads me to another question. So Denmark is number five according to the number of geniuses per capita. What do you think the correlation is with this — you don’t have a focus on academic you know or on achievement – and yet you’re the happiest, what is the relationship there?
Jessica Alexander: Well, I’m actually writing a book about this right now and I was just in Denmark. I’ve been all over the schools and it is so interesting what they’re doing with education. And one of the things they’re doing is there is a huge focus on well-being. So there’s a huge focus on they call it (unclear 12:04) which means well-being -being the students of social emotional skills. And, in fact, they have very few national tests but the one national test they do have that all ages take across the country is in how good they feel. Do they feel seen and heard? Do they feel happy or are they feeling bullied? So, they can measure the well-being of students across schools. And they have plans of how to improve that because they know that the better children feel, the better their self-esteem is, and the better they do academically.
Kelly: Wow! That’s great!
Jessica Alexander: Yeah! It’s so interesting that we focus so much on academics (right) that we forget to also build up the self-esteem which is different than being good at a lot of things.
Kelly: Right! So building that up early is important in having that sense of self and confidence ultimately will get them to learn and achieve. So how are the academics different then—how is it structured there?
Jessica Alexander: It’s a lot more goal oriented, individual goal oriented so there’s a lot less of this standardized testing. There’s not a grade. They don’t get grades until they’re around I think 11. They make individual plans which are not just about academics- it’s also about how can I be a better friend? How can I be a better presenter, etc. always different things. And so, academically they work a lot in groups. I think 60 percent of the work in Denmark is done in group work and this is called “collaborative learning” and so basically all the studies show that this increases empathy. Which is what we’re seeing now is a huge factor in successful leaders and managers businesses. But, again-you see- it’s about the student being self-driven.
Kelly: You said something about empathy and I want to go there as you had a whole chapter about that. Why is empathy so important?
Jessica Alexander: Empathy is really important. I learned so much about empathy from the Danish way and it has totally changed my life as a person and as a parent. Basically, the reason that it is important is because it’s what really connects us to other people. And it’s a skill we know now that empathy has to be taught. We are all born with a capacity for empathy but we have to learn to hook up to other people. Feeling connected to others is one of the fundamental basis of happiness. It helps us repair our relationships. I mean it’s really an important part of our lives. And like I said, in the book we talk about how they teach it in Denmark to children and so they grow up naturally being a lot more empathic. It’s also voted one of the most empathetic countries in the world!
Kelly: A lot of things going on there
Jessica Alexander: Oh. A lot of things
Kelly: Do you think that kids here are less empathetic in the U.S. in general?
Jessica Alexander: Well studies show that empathy has dropped up to 50 percent in the last 30, 40 years in America. There’s also these studies in the book and I think there’s a lot of reasons why this could be. But one of them is partly because we don’t- I don’t think we see it so much as something that we should teach. And I think it’s because we can’t measure it, we can’t really give a grade on empathy. We can’t really give a standardized test on empathy and this is where I’m hoping that when people look at the test results of Denmark and how great they’re doing (in happiness). So maybe we can change our focus to things that are clearly working to make happy people. Even if we can’t measure it, it’s working.
Kelly: So, what are some things that we can do to get our children to be more empathetic?
Jessica Alexander: Well, there’s a lot of things. For one thing Danes read a lot of different kinds of stories to their children that don’t always have a happy ending. So, reading stories that talk about upsetting feelings, difficult emotions builds empathy. For example, the Little Mermaid, many people think that the little mermaid she falls in love. She gets the prince and she lives happily ever after. But the real Little Mermaid is Danish, it’s a Danish story, and she actually dies of sadness because the prince doesn’t fall in love with her and she turns in the sea foam. I read both versions with my daughter and she really prefered the sad version because it opened up so many discussions. We talked about a lot of different feelings and that’s also giving language to feelings. So that’s just one example, there’s many.
Kelly: Where can we find those books?
Jessica Alexander: Yeah Hans Christian Andersen for example he’s pretty famous. He’s probably one of the most famous Danes. A lot of his fairy tales are really sad or just ambiguous.
Kelly: I want to talk about reframing. I love that chapter too and I use it a lot with my two toddlers obviously. They get frustrated and anxious. Can you give us an example of maybe a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed? How you would reframe for them?
Jessica Alexander: We call this age often the terrible twos. So that means we have this expectation that they’re going to be terrible and annoying and we can kind of expect that behavior. And I always knew that in Denmark they had a very different relationship with toddlers. It was- it just seemed much more smooth and calm and happy- and then I realized they call the terrible twos ‘trodsalder’ which means it’s the boundary pushing age or the independence phase. So it’s seen as a very healthy. It’s welcomed! It’s even seen as cute and this when you see how we “reframe” that age into being something positive, you react very differently as a parent. And I think the reframing is not always, it’s not just for children, it’s also for us and how we see ourselves. And how we see our lives. And we are the teachers to our children. So, the more we get better at reframing the better they will be. Actually, that’s what really inspired me to write the book was listening to my husband reframing with my daughter and then reading the newspaper and I thought oh my gosh! This is amazing! To have this Danish influence that will affect her for the rest of her life because he was changing her fear of a spider into curiosity and openness and she loves both now. She could have been afraid of them. Our words matter.
Kelly: Especially for the parents, I think it even for me and I’ve actually like you said step outside and really just look at the situation and reframe from a parenting perspective too. Which I thought was really it sounds simple but you were a good reminder.
Jessica Alexander: And I think another thing to remember is there’s a saying in Latin it’s “nomen est omen”. Which means the name becomes the outcome basically, so when we label our children, if we label them as annoying or sneaky etc, these words are so important because children hear these words and they try to make sense of them. So, you say it even casually and they think “oh my mom say this –so that must be how I am.” And that’s why it’s so important to find the more positive aspects of a label and build on that. It’s really interesting when you consider ourselves, and how much we believe about ourselves comes from our childhood. So, we can even reframe our own story. Just be aware that they hear us and the words we use are really important. Language is a super important I think.
Kelly: Absolutely I agree. If there is one thing that you can tell an American parent to take away from the Danish style of parenting what would it be?
Jessica Alexander: Teach respect, be respectful and you will be respected.
Kelly: Okay, for more information about your research and work where can people go?
Jessica Alexander: You can go to either JessicaJoelleAlexander.com, a lot of my articles there or the danishway.com you can find a lot of information. And, of course you can find the book pretty much anywhere.
Kelly: Thank you so much for being here. It was a real honor to talk to you and hear just from your perspective and just some of these tips for you.
Jessica Alexander: Thanks for having me.
About Jessica Joelle Alexander
Jessica Joelle Alexander is a bestselling author, Danish parenting expert, journalist, speaker, and cultural researcher. Her work has been featured in TIME, Salon, The Atlantic, the NY Times, Vanity Fair, NPR, Huffington Post, Mothermag and the Greater Good Science Center Berkley. Her book The Danish Way of Parenting: what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids, is published in over 21 countries and 19 languages. Jessica speaks four languages and lives with her Danish husband and two children in Europe. For more information, visit: www.jessicajoellealexander.com.